In November and December we traveled from Istanbul to Italy through the Balkans. Below is our route.
After spending a lovely week in Istanbul we decided to take the overnight train to Sofia, Bulgaria and start our rambling tour of the Balkans. This phase of our trip was perhaps the most open-ended yet, in terms of schedule. Previously, we always had places to go, people to see, specific things to do, but as of the writing of this post, the only commitment we have is to meet up with Chiara’s sister and her husband Adam in Portugal on January 5th. That means we are free to see as much, or as little of Europe between Turkey and Portugal as we feel like. Obviously, with Europe being so big, diverse, and interesting, it would take another year if we tried to see everything! So, we decided to come up with a couple rules for the next month of travel, which differed quite a bit from our usual hyper-planned schedule.
- Book no more than two days in advance
- Do whatever feels good
This didn’t mean that we stopped doing research into places, or that we didn’t have a general idea of where we wanted to go, but it meant that we could travel uninhibited around Europe, and “follow our noses” a bit more when deciding where to go next. The first stop on our tour was Sofia, Bulgaria. Why did we choose Sofia? We don’t know! But there was a direct train from Istanbul so we thought, “why not?”
Sofia, at first glance, appeared to be a gray, dreary, Eastern Bloc capital. After leaving the colorful, vibrant, and sunny Istanbul the day before, we were greeted at the Sofia train station by damp, chilly weather, and sullen-looking locals milling around the sparsely populated streets. We took a Soviet-era tram from the train station to our hostel. Being the low season, we expected to be the only people staying there, but upon entering the common room we discovered a packed and noisy room full of people from all over the world, eating dinner, drinking beer, and swapping stories. Hostel Mostel was a first for us, in that they provide: free breakfast, free dinner, and one free glass of beer every night! They don’t phone-it-in with the meals either; breakfast and dinner were filling, well-rounded meals with several different options. The most amazing part was that a double room with a private bathroom was only 20€ per night! We would later discover that Sofia is a much more happening city than we assumed at first glance.
The following day we took a free walking tour of Sofia. Free walking tours are popular throughout Europe and are an amazing way to learn about the history and must-see landmarks of a city from a local. Lately, the first thing we do when we come to a new city, is look up when the next free walking tour is starting. The tours last between 2-4 hours, and at the end you tip the tour guide whatever you feel is appropriate. The free tour in Sofia was particularly good, and so many people showed up that they had to split us into three groups. Our guide was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the history of Bulgaria and took us around to all the main sights. Sofia was once a Roman controlled settlement called Serdica, the ruins of which have been partially excavated from beneath the foundations of the city. In the 20th century, Bulgaria was under communist rule and part of the Eastern Bloc. Today Bulgaria is part of the European Union (EU), and it was the first EU country we visited on this trip!
That evening we went to a local park, where our guide told us every Sunday people come out to take part in traditional Bulgarian dance. The music and dancing were quite entertaining. Everybody joins hands and makes a circle, then they engage in a complicated line dance to the rhythm of the music. The locals were even happy to let Chiara join in and give it a try, but she quickly learned the dances are harder than they look!
From Sofia, we took a day trip to Plovdiv, another large city in Bulgaria about 2 hours away from Sofia by bus. This year Plovdiv was awarded as a “European Capital of Culture” by the EU. We didn’t know what this meant, but the locals were all very proud of this fact and encouraged us to visit Plovdiv. Plovdiv is famous for its old town, replete with colorful 19th century mansions, and a well-restored ancient Roman amphitheater. We found Plovdiv to be an easy and enjoyable day trip from Sofia.
Bulgaria to North Macedonia
The next leg of our trip took us from Sofia to Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. Skopje was 5-hours by bus from Sofia. One thing that would later become a theme of our Balkans trip was numerous, often lengthy, border crossings. At the Bulgaria-North Macedonia border, one of the men on our bus was taken away by the border guards for questioning. The rest of us had to wait around for over an hour before the guards came back and told us that the guy’s papers were not in order and he was being sent back to Bulgaria. We felt very fortunate to have our US passports, because the guards barely gave us a second glance before stamping our passports and letting us through.
Skopje, North Macedonia
Skopje gets a lot of negative feedback from travel bloggers on the internet, but we were actually quite charmed by this lively little city. Most of the complaints are centered around the “Skopje 2014” plan, which was a government-backed initiative to revitalize the historic downtown by constructing numerous new monuments, and updating the facades of the existing buildings to give them a more classical appearance. People complain that the new monuments are gaudy and jarring in appearance, and that the new facades are just a glitzy veneer over the old buildings. On top of that, the project came under fire for a ridiculous cost overrun and suspected corruption by the government. However, even knowing all of this, we found downtown Skopje to be energetic, walkable, and attractive. The random huge monuments everywhere that were built in the past 5 years were a bit strange at first, but the fact is they look pretty good, and there is now a lot of public space for people to enjoy. Besides, Skopje is not lacking in “real” history either. The city is home to a 500-year old stone bridge and an Old Bazaar that are remnants from the time when the city was ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
As usual, the first thing we did in Skopje was sign up for the free walking tour. We visited many of the new and controversial monuments as well as the Old Bazaar. The monument which the Macedonians are most proud of — which also happens to be the most controversial — is the statue of Alexander the Great. There are eternal tensions between North Macedonia and Greece as to who gets to claim Alexander the Great as their “own”, and Greece was furious when they discovered that the largest statue in Skopje would be of Alexander riding a horse. A further complication is that North Macedonia is very keen to join the EU, who has cited political tension with Greece as an issue that needs to be resolved before they can join. As a conciliation, the statue was renamed “Warrior on a Horse”, which is a hilariously absurd solution because clearly everybody knows who it really is. Greece is also the reason that the name of the country was changed from Macedonia to North Macedonia in February of this year.
After visiting the monuments downtown we crossed the Stone Bridge to the Old Bazaar. The Old Bazaar still has an Ottoman vibe to the place. People are grilling kebabs in the street and serving up “Macedonian (not Turkish) Coffee”. There are several old mosques and a restored caravanserai from the city’s days as a trading hub.
While in North Macedonia we became addicted to burek, a pastry that is popular throughout the Balkans. Burek is made of layers of flaky pastry, filled with meat, cheese, or spinach, that are then rolled into a flat pie and deep fried. The traditional accompaniment to burek is a glass of drinking yogurt. It sounds like a weird combination, but somehow it goes together perfectly. One person explained, you need the dairy to neutralize the obscene amount of oil in the burek, which is obviously what makes it so delicious.
Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia
From Skopje we took a bus to Lake Ohrid, one of Europe’s most enchanting lakes. We visited during the low season, so there were very few people there, but fortunately we got lucky and had nice weather almost the whole time. We stayed in a super comfortable apartment with great views of the lake and a kitchen so we could cook our own meals. We lounged away several days at Lake Ohrid while we caught up on blog posts and Chiara worked on job applications.
At approximately 4am, the night before we were scheduled to leave Ohrid, I felt a pretty big jolt in our apartment. I asked Chiara if she felt anything but she was sound asleep (unsurprisingly). I figured I must have imagined it and went back to sleep. However, upon waking the next morning our phones were buzzing with alerts that a magnitude 6.4 earthquake had just struck near Tirana, the capital of Albania, roughly 130 km away! That morning we were supposed to take a bus from Ohrid to Tirana. We didn’t hear of any road closures and the damage seemed relatively light in Tirana considering the size of the quake, so we decided to press on to Albania anyways.
When we arrived at our hostel in Tirana, the earthquake was all anyone was talking about. Apparently, everyone in the city rushed out of their homes in the night, and many people slept in the main square. Nothing was too badly damaged in Tirana, but all the people we talked to were understandably still spooked. Chiara, of course, headed straight into the thick of things. She immediately contacted her colleagues at the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), and set about to do reconnaissance of the damaged buildings. The town of Durrës, approximately 35 km from Tirana, was hardest hit by the earthquake. Over 50 people died and many buildings were damaged. Chiara spent two days surveying the city and taking photos of damaged buildings in Durrës. She then compiled her findings into a report that is being circulated amongst the international earthquake engineering community. Because we happened to be in Tirana mere hours after the earthquake struck, Chiara was in a unique position to be the eyes and ears on the ground for researchers who did not have immediate access to the affected area. She will try to write up a blog post of her experience at some point.
While Chiara was working in Durrës, I spent two days nervously texting her for updates and exploring Tirana. Aftershocks were happening every few hours, some larger than others, but the buildings I saw in Tirana were unaffected. I took another free walking tour in Tirana and got to hear from a local about his experience during the earthquake, as well as his life growing up in communist Albania. Albania had a particularly repressive form of communism for over 40 years under the dictator Enver Hoxha, who even thought Stalin was too soft! People were not allowed to enter or leave Albania, and all anyone knew was propaganda from the government. Many people only had a vague idea of the world that existed outside Albania’s borders when the regime fell in 1991.
Hoxha was paranoid that Albania would be invaded by the United States, so he commissioned the building of more than 170,000 concrete bunkers all over Albania, at a great public expense, without ever being used for anything. Today you can see them peppered throughout the landscape, and many you can enter freely. There is also an excellent museum in Tirana called BunkArt, which has been converted from an underground nuclear bomb shelter to a museum about the Hoxha regime. We ended up spending an extra day in Tirana so Chiara could work on her report before taking the bus to Kotor, Montenegro.
Kotor Bay in Montenegro, is another stunning body of water in the Balkans that during the summer is a European party hub, but during our visit in late-November was a sleepy little town with few tourists. Again, we were lucky with the sunny weather that was tantalizingly close to being suitable for swimming, but just cold enough to convince us it was a bad idea. Kotor has a charming walled old city and a large medieval fortress high up on the hill above the town. We spent a few days in Kotor and hiked up the ~1,300 steps to St. John’s Fortress to get some truly remarkable views of Kotor Bay. From Kotor we continued along the coast of the Adriatic Sea to Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Dubrovnik, with its sparkling white walls jutting out into the Adriatic Sea, has been the shining star of Croatia’s tourism sector for years, but lately that popularity has been taken to a whole new level as most people associate Dubrovnik as the filming location for King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones tourism is a real thing, and you can now pay 20€ for a “Game of Thrones Tour” of the city, where a guide takes you around to all the filming locations for iconic scenes such as: that time King Joffrey had poop thrown at him, or Ceresei’s “walk of shame”. The real shame is that the Game of Thrones association has bumped prices up even higher than they were previously, making Dubrovnik a rather pricey destination now. For example, one ticket to walk along the relatively small city walls costs nearly 30€! We couldn’t stomach that price, but fortunately all of the main sights in Dubrovnik are clustered together, and there are ways to see the whole city in one day on the cheap. We downloaded a walking tour off the internet (no free walking tours in Dubrovnik of course) and set about visiting the famous historical buildings with Chiara narrating the tour.
Dubrovnik was once the capital of the Republic of Ragusa, a powerful, self-governing, maritime city-state that became rich as a trading hub on the Adriatic Sea. In the 1990’s, during the breakup of Yugoslavia and resulting war in the Balkans, Dubrovnik was under siege for seven months by Serbian forces. The people of Dubrovnik withstood constant artillery shelling that damaged much of the city and killed 114 civilians. Today the city has been meticulously restored to its former glory.
Even though it was expensive, we thought Dubrovnik was worthy of the hype, and the real history and beauty of the city is much more interesting than any silly Game of Thrones connection. From Dubrovnik we took a bus to Split, another popular seaside town in Croatia.
Split is a much more down-to-earth seaside town in Croatia. It has a beautiful shoreline and old city, similar to Dubrovnik, but it is much cheaper, and real people actually live there who are not directly involved in tourism. Split is also known for excellent seafood! We spent a few days exploring Split before taking the train to Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Ljubljana (pronounced: lyoob-lyana) is the capital of Slovenia, and simply the cutest little town we’ve been to yet. The colorful old town with Ljubljana Castle perched on a hill above the city creates an enchanting atmosphere. Much of the city’s modern layout, iconic buildings, public squares, and bridges were designed by the Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik, who Slovenians like to describe as “Ljubljana’s Gaudi”. Outside of the old town, Ljubljana is a clean, green, and modern European capital, with good public transit and rail connections to much of Europe.
It was also the first place we visited that might actually be better in the winter. Christmas markets and festive decorations filled the old town, and despite the near-freezing temperatures, the locals were out late into the evening drinking hot mulled wine and merrymaking. Of course, we happily joined in the festivities.
One of the highlights of being there in December was getting to see the creative Christmas light displays put up throughout downtown. A clearly eccentric Slovenian artist has been in charge of the designs over the last few years, and the results are spectacular. And at times, very strange. For example, one part of town is covered in shooting stars that give an stunning 3D impression as you walk down the street. But on the next street, the theme is… conception? Our tour guide said all the locals were embarrassed by that particular display, but we thought it was fantastic.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Lake Bled is the must-see natural attraction in Slovenia, and you can find many superlatives used to describe its beauty in travel guides. On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped Julian Alps surrounding the crystal clear lake. There is a tiny island in the middle with a church on top, and a medieval castle towers over the lake. However, we got unlucky with the weather (it was bound to happen eventually) and it was raining the whole day we visited Lake Bled. We ended up putting on our raincoats and walking around the lake, which still provided some excellent photo opportunities, bad weather aside. Then we retreated to a cafe where we tried the famous Lake Bled Cream Cake over a coffee. All-in-all, it was a worthwhile experience, and Lake Bled is only an hour bus ride from Ljubljana so it wasn’t a major time commitment.
After wrapping up our tour of the Balkans in Slovenia, we ate our last burek and boarded a 5am FlixBus to Bologna, Italy. More on Italy to come soon!